Saturday 15 February 2003 went down in history. Over 20 million people across the world joined a global protest against war in Iraq. The scale of the action stunned rulers everywhere.
In London around two million people marched. At least 1.25 million households across Britain were represented by at least one member. It was the biggest demonstration in Britain’s history.
Some people didn’t get to march very far at all. Instead they found themselves hemmed in for hours as unprecedented crowds filled the streets.
Hundreds of thousands weaved through back streets to get back to their coaches in time. For chunks of the afternoon the sheer numbers meant that no one could get a mobile phone signal.
“We knew about the hundreds of buses, the placards, the press interest,” said protester Theresa Mohammed. “Nothing, however, prepared me for the sight of all those people.
“When people discuss the Stop the War Coalition, I always proudly say that I had a role within it, and invariably with a big smile on my face.”
Never had so many people known about a march before it happened. Queues formed at Stop the War stalls across Britain in the run-up to the protest as people clambered to get on the coaches for it.
Even TV weather reporters began talking about the protest. “If you’re marching tomorrow, remember to wrap up warm,” advised one on the eve of the demonstration.
Those organising transport frantically rang round coach firms to track down every available bus. When new ones were found they were filled in minutes.
“There were no more coaches or drivers available in the north west of England,” said Maulana Saeed Ahmed from Preston. “We didn’t know what to do.
“A number of the brothers were taxi drivers, and they got on the phone. We managed to get minibuses and taxis together, and got everyone down to the march.
“It was such a historic event—we all felt the extra hassle was worth it.”
In Glasgow, at the same time as the London demo, around 100,000 people targeted Labour’s spring conference and forced Tony Blair to flee.
Labour Party supporters joined the protest. “I feel ashamed because I’ve been a member for umpteen years,” said Khushi Usmani, from Glasgow.
“I feel ashamed that Blair doesn’t listen to his party members.”
For once, mainstream reporters had to make an effort. They travelled with protesters on some of the coaches and trains heading to the protests.
But many couldn’t make sense of what they were seeing.
They marvelled at the idea that “middle England” had protested against the government. In reality the protests had pulled in ordinary people from all kinds of backgrounds.
Revolutionary socialists were at the heart of setting up the Stop the War Coalition and building it. But the movement also drew in millions of people who had never been politically active before.
Lots of students and young people got involved. Significant numbers of Muslims became active in the movement and helped lead it.
This gave the lie to politicians’ myth that people in Britain are inherently racist and incapable of cooperating together.
Trade unionists marched with their banners. The TUC general council voted unanimously to oppose the war—the first time it had opposed British involvement in a war since 1956.
Trade unions across Britain donated money to help people travel to the protest.
Some workers even took industrial action over the war—such as train drivers in Motherwell, Scotland, who refused to move trains carrying arms.
Socialist Worker at the time described 15 February as a watershed, “a turning point in global politics and the birth of a new movement”.
In the days that followed more protests, stunts and marches took place in local areas. School students would walk out against the war when the invasion began on 19 March 2003.
Along with trade unionists, socialists and other protesters they would block motorways and face police truncheons on the streets.
The anti-war movement opened people’s eyes to the brutality of the system. Millions of people would never look at the world in the same way again.
Kath, a drama student from Scarborough, told Socialist Worker on 15 February, “You get a gut feeling of the power that we have when we all get together. It’s emotional.”
Alan, a Unison steward, felt the same. “Great numbers influence people in power,” he said. “I hope it frightens them to death.
“It’s only when ordinary people come into the streets that we can see that real power lies with us.”
A few months after 15 February the Stop the War Coalition received the following email: “I would just like to assure you that there are many of us virgin marchers this year who will not forget, not be quiet, and not take injustice lying down any more.”
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